Centuries before the terms Native American or Indian were created, the tribes were spread throughout the Americas. Before any white man set foot on this territory, it was settled by the forefathers of bands we now call Sioux, or Cherokee, or Iroquois.
For thousands of years, the American Indian grew its customs and legacy without interference. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what’s currently the U.S. we have learned plenty. It’s a story of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly advanced structures and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the history of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders sent the first ships in our direction, the aim was to discover new resources – but the quality of climate and the bounty of everything from timber to wildlife soon changed their tune. As those leaders learned from their explorers, the drive to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish raced to slice up the “New World” by shipping over poorly prepared colonists as fast as possible. At the beginning, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that soon gave way to trade, since the Europeans who landed here understood that their survival was doubtful without Indian help.
Thus followed decades of relative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American land. But the pressure to push inland followed soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were restless to locate even more resources, and some colonists came for independence and adventure.
They wanted more space. And so began the process of driving the American Indian out of the way.
It took the shape of cash payments, barter, and famously, treaties which were nearly uniformly neglected once the Indians were moved away from the land in question.
The U.S. government’s policies towards Native Americans in the second half of the nineteenth century were determined by the desire to expand westward into territories occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s virtually all Native American tribes, approximately 360,000 in number, were living to the west of the Mississippi River. These American Indians, some from the Northwestern and Southeastern territories, were confined to Indian Territory located in contemporary Oklahoma, while the Kiowa and Comanche Native American tribes shared the area of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups encountered misfortune as the constant stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already populated by these various groups of Indians.
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The early nineteenth century in the United States was marked by its steady expansion to the Mississippi River. However, due to the Gadsden purchase, that lead to U.S. control of the borderlands of southern New Mexico and Arizona along with the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion did not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. pretty much doubled the amount of acreage within its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of hordes of European and Asian immigrants who wished to join the surge of American settlers heading west. This, combined with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented alluring opportunities for those ready to make the huge quest westward. Therefore, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers began establishing their homesteads in the Great Plains and other parts of the Native American tribe-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the laws and regulations and operations established and adapted in the United States to define the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became an independent nation, it adopted the European policies towards the local peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. designed its very own widely varying regulations regarding the changing perspectives and requirements of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to execute the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress formed a new agency within the War Department referred to as Bureau of Indian Affairs, which worked directly with the U.S. Army to enforce their policies. At times the federal government recognized the Indians as self-governing, distinct political communities with varying cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to compel the Native American tribes to give up their cultural identity, surrender their land and assimilate into the American traditions.
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With the steady flow of settlers in to Indian “” land, Eastern newspapers published sensationalized stories of savage native tribes carrying out widespread massacres of hundreds of white travelers. Although some settlers lost their lives to American Indian attacks, this was not the norm; in fact, Native American tribes generally helped settlers cross over the Plains. Not only did the American Indians sell wild game and other supplies to travelers, but they acted as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the good natures of the American Indians, settlers still presumed the possibility of an attack.
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To soothe these fears, in 1851 the U.S. government placed a conference with several local Indian tribes and established the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Within this treaty, each Native American tribe consented to a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct tracks and forts in this territory and pledged not to assault settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make gross annual payments to the Indians. The Native American tribes responded peacefully to the treaty; in fact the Cheyenne, Sioux, Crow, Arapaho, Assinibione, Mandan, Gros Ventre and Arikara tribes, who entered into the treaty, even agreed to end the hostilities amidst their tribes in order to accept the terms of the treaty.
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This peaceful agreement between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes didn’t stand very long. After hearing tales of fertile terrain and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their pledge established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by allowing thousands of non-Indians to flood into the area. With so many newcomers heading west, the federal government established a policy of restricting Native Americans to reservations, limited areas of acreage within a group’s territory “” earmarked exclusively for their use, in order to give more territory for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government forced Native Americans to abandon their land and move to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were offered a yearly payment that would include money in addition to food, animals, household goods and farming tools. These reservations were established in an attempt to clear the way for increasing U.S. growth and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans separate from the whites in order to reduce the potential for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many complications. Most of all many of the native peoples didn’t altogether understand the document that they were signing or the conditions within it; moreover, the treaties did not respect the cultural practices of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government institutions responsible for applying these policies were plagued with awful management and corruption. In fact most treaty provisions were never accomplished.
The U.S. government almost never fulfilled their side of the deals even when the Native Americans migrated quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents frequently sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers required more land in the West, the federal government continually cut the size of reservation lands. By this time, most of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ constant appetite for land.
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Angered by the government’s deceitful and unfair policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they struggled to protect their territories and their tribes’ survival, more than one thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an effort to make Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government responded to these hostilities with costly military operations. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian policies were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed dramatically following the Civil War. Reformers believed that the policy of forcing Native Americans onto reservations was too strict even while industrialists, who were concerned with their land and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the only long-term means of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government passed a critical law proclaiming that the United States would not deal with Native American tribes as autonomous entities.
This law signaled a major change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed the Native Americans, not as countries outside of its jurisdictional control, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the “” government, Congress imagined that it was easier to make the policy of assimilation a widely recognised part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government representatives perceived assimilation as the most effective remedy for what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the only permanent method of protecting U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government pressed Native Americans to relocate out of their customary dwellings, move into wooden homes and become farmers.
The federal government enacted laws that required Native Americans to reject their traditional appearance and way of living. Some laws outlawed common religious practices while others ordered Indian males to cut their long hair. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized tribunals to implement federal regulations that often banned traditional cultural and religious practices.
To boost the assimilation course, the government set up Indian facilities that tried to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian kids. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were created to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to accomplish this goal, the schools required pupils to speak only English, dress in proper American attire and to substitute their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new policies brought Native Americans nearer to the end of their established tribal identity and the start of their existence as citizens under the complete control of the U.S. authorities.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress approved the General Allotment Act, the most important element of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was developed to “civilize” American Indians by educating them to become farmers. In order to achieve this, Congress planned to increase private ownership of Indian property by dividing reservations, which were collectively owned, and providing each family their own plot of land.
Additionally, by pushing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the left over territory. The General Allotment Act, better known as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and each family be provided with an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults were given between 40 to 80 acres; the residual acreage was to be sold. Congress hoped that the Dawes Act would divide Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while reducing the expense of Indian supervision and producing prime property to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act turned out to be catastrophic for the American Indians; over the next decades they existed under policies that outlawed their traditional lifestyle and yet failed to provide the critical resources to support their businesses and households. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land brought about the significant reduction of Indian-owned property. Inside thirty years, the tribes had lost over two-thirds of the region that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was purchased by white settlers.
Frequently, Native Americans were duped out of their allotments or were forced to sell their property in order pay bills and feed their families. As a result, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often unable to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the creators of the Act had anticipated. It also developed anger among Indians for the U.S. government, as the allotment practice sometimes ruined land that was the spiritual and cultural location of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed significantly. Through U.S. administration policies, American Indians were forced from their housing as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without restriction, were now inhabited with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over these years the Indians ended up defrauded out of their territory, food and approach to life, as the “” government’s Indian regulations coerced them into reservations and attempted to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t survive relocation, cultural destruction and military defeat; by 1890 the Native American population was decreased to fewer than 250,000 persons. As a result of decades of discriminatory and ruthless policies implemented by the United States government between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was altered forever.
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